Sunday, February 10, 2013

Is it possible to bring about real social change in the absence of a catastrophe like war or famine or revolution?


"If you're in trouble, or hurt or need -- go to the poor people. They're the only ones that’ll help -- the only ones.”

-- Ma Joad, in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath,
quoted by Ian Welsh in a recent post called

by Ken

Ian's "Reminder" post contained, in addition to the Steinbeck quote, just the following line:

"Only when we understand, deep in our bones, that life and the world are profoundly, vastly unfair, do we approach compassion."

He sent this brief post out earlier this week, the day after one called "The coming catastrophes and the Rawlsian veil of ignorance." For an explanation of "the Rawlsian veil of ignorance," I direct you to the post itself. I don't think we need it to grasp the basic proposition:
The great problem we have today in improving our society, in fixing our economy, is that so many people don't want to give up what they have. . . . [W]hat the past 40 years have proven is this: if you lose your job, you're on your own. If you're in your 40s and 50s and you lose a good job, you'll probably never, ever, have a good job ever again. . . .
People know, they know and they are right, that economic change, in our society, could cost them everything. Their job and any prospect of a good job. Their house. Their marriage. Their health care and even their life.

So they grasp tightly to what they have, and everyone fights to make sure that nothing really changes. Each person, with their little or big piece of the pie, fights viciously to keep it whether it's good for society or not. They are right to do so.
Those people clinging to what they have, Ian points out, are often clinging to jobs that are inimical to a fairer and more economically more functional (for the non-elites, that is) order, offering as examples the health insurance industry ("whose job is to deny care in exchange for money"), peteroleum extraction, large banks and brokerages ("banking done in a way that build society rather than tears it down probably doesn't need [the] skill set" that produces those high bonuses." And more: "We need a lot less accountants, a lot less administrators at universities, a lot less soldiers, a ton less spies, far fewer people working in the military-industrial complex, and on and on."

As for the plight of people who lose jobs:
People who are displaced by economic change, good or bad, aren't taken care of. We have reduced retraining, made welfare and unemployment insurance harder to get, increased university tuition, not made efforts to find or create new, good jobs. We hire foreigners to take over the job of older techies, since they cost too much.
All of which, says Ian,
is why we can only have change after catastrophe: after war and famine and revolution, because only in extremis, only when, as in WWII, people realize that everyone is in it together, will they be willing to take care of each other. And only in time of catastrophe, when so many have lost everything, will they be willing to change society. . . .

This is the argument for catastrophe: that we will not, cannot, make the changes required to avoid catastrophe until we have lost or truly, existentially, fear the loss of everything. We will not be fair and kind to each other till we have no choice, we will not be fair and kind to others till we know we need that for ourselves.

This is sad, pathetic even, an indictment of humanity. Does it have to be so? I hope not, but I fear it does.
"It is such issues," Ian says, that he'll be tackling in the book he's working on, which he wrote about in a previous post, "To know what to do is not enough," which I wrote about early last month in ("In the reach for general affluence, says Ian Welsh, 'The monster facing us, as usual, is us'").

The question, as Ian poses it now, is:

"Are we bound to the wheel of causality even in our own societies, or can we take control of our own destinies?"

One thought occurs to me, regarding an obvious way it occurs to me we can distinguish between the economic meltdown we've suffered since 2008 and the Great Depression to which it has seemed to me to bear such a close resemblance. The Great Depression was sufficiently catastrophic to produce some genuine change. All our economic meltdown has brought us is (a) the Teabaggers and (b) an even more energetic effort by the 1% to tighten the screws on us.

"That's why Occupy had to be put down"

Both of Ian's posts this week elicited seriously interesting comments, which I encourage you to check out onsite. One comment, though, Roman Berry's in response to the "Reminder" post (which you'll find at the same link), stuck with me:
My favorite book. I hated it growing up when it was a school assignment. During a nearly year's stay in the VA hospital I came back to it and as with many books I did not appreciate as a very young person, I found that maturity gave a different viewpoint and appreciation. I now re-read it every few years. There's much there that is part of the very foundation of my liberalism.

When Occupy sprung up, I was reminded of this passage from Steinbeck's book:
One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out.

The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen.

Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here "I lost my land" is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate -- "We lost our land." The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first "we" there grows a still more dangerous thing: "I have a little food" plus "I have none." If from this problem the sum is "We have a little food," the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It's wool. It was my mother's blanket- take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning -- from "I" to "we."

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into "I," and cuts you off forever from the "we."
That's why Occupy had to be put down. It was the beginning of "I" to "we."

Ma Joad was right. If you're in trouble, or hurt or need -- go to the poor people. They'll help.

Next time you're traveling and see someone stopped to help someone that has broken down by the road, if the break-down isn't with the vehicle of a pretty girl, pay attention to who has stopped to help. It won't be a late model Mercedes, Beemer or Cadillac driven by someone well dressed that's stopped to lend assistance. It will be someone working class, or poor. Almost always.
I just ordered an ex-libary copy of the Library of America Steinbeck volume that includes The Grapes of Wrath from for under $8 (plus shipping), and there were a number of other ex-library copies listed at that price. Interestingly, most of the library copies are indicated as being heavily used. I find that rather encouraging, actually -- as long as one assumes that the libraries that decommissioned these copies replaced them with new ones.

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At 6:43 AM, Anonymous BarryB said...

Good one, Ken.


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